Saturday, September 26, 2009

still life (flash fiction)

He watches the girl behind the bar with something approaching awe. The compact motion of her hands in the sink. Lift glass, swirl sponge-on-stick, rinse, place on towel to dry, over and over without a single motion wasted. The bartender pulls another Guinness and sets it on a napkin in front of him. He wishes for a cigarette. No smoking in bars seems like the act of a sadist. It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Outside the window, the streets are teeming with an impressionist blur of people. Michael Donnelly ignores them. Enjoying the cool, loamy bitterness of his drink, he draws stick-figure cartoons and when the girl comes to wipe down the oak bar, he slides them to her. She laughs, tucking a strand of blue hair behind her ear. When she moves to hand them back, Michael shakes his head, "I made them for you, keep them." She smiles, a tinge of wariness in her eyes. He imagines she gets hit on by customers, probably with alarming frequency. A half-hour goes by, and he's on his third Guinness when the door to the once trendy, now shabby bar, creaks open. It's not Lucy, and that's all that matters.

At four o'clock, he pays his tab. He leaves a twenty-dollar tip. He asks the girl her name. She still has the wary look of a caged cat as she replies, "Jill." He smiles and thanks her.

Walking in the impersonal intimacy of the subway, he wishes everything could stop. If it can't go back to the way it was, let it stop. He feels like he's treading tar as he moves through his life. It's all too slow and too exhausting. Nothing matters. Get up, feed the cat, go to work, eat dinner. Except he didn't go to work today. He hasn't gone to work in 3 months. He wanders, instead. The library, the museums, the bar. He carries a notebook sometimes, writing things down that he wants to remember, that he thinks the world should know. Mostly, he thinks about Lucy.

She'd give him that look, if she saw him now: brow arched, hands on hips, the tiniest smirk tilting a corner of her mouth up. His smart-ass Mona Lisa. It took him a year to go in the subway again, two to enter the station where it happened. Three years in, entering the car only makes his stomach drop ten feet, instead of a hundred.

Climbing the stairs to his apartment, he takes a drag on his cigarette and wishes for cancer. The key in the deadbolt brings the cat running. Not as quickly as the sound of a can opening, but quick enough. Entering rooms mottled with the dregs of sunlight through blinds they only put up so they could fuck in every room without giving the neighbors a show, he sighs. The small, softly powerful body winding its way around his legs is the last trace of Lucy in his life.

After wolfing down a tuna melt and mixing the juice into Pineapple's food, Michael Donnelly sits in his chair in the gathering dark with a gun in his hand and wishes that suicide were that easy.


  1. Terrific! Love the detail of tuna juice, and love the wariness behind the bartender's smile. The only thing I'd add is a line that tells us exactly what happened to Lucy - I just know she died, and it was on a subway. I don't get why the cars are the big trigger. (no pun intended. no, really.)

  2. Truth: I wrote this in about an hour's time. (Maybe a little more with twitter interruptions and formatting issues.) I really wanted it to be both specific and ambiguous. Until I decided to write that last line, exactly as it popped into my head, I don't think I thought she jumped. I do now. Since it opened up a completely different line of narrative, I left it out.